Dakota War comes to Metro State campus


Just last week, Metro State congratulated itself for its work on developing curricula for teaching both Dakota and Ojibwe languages. The timing was ironic, as this week students and faculty angrily protested a decision not to offer two courses — “American Indian Spirituality” and “Dakota People of Minnesota: Genocide, Survival, and Recovery” — in 2012, the 150th anniversary of the War of 1862.


FULL DISCLOSURE: I teach writing at Metro State University as an adjunct faculty member.

I wasn’t able to get to the protest, but I reached Dr. Chris Mato Nunpa, the professor at the center of the protest, by phone. He taught the American Indian Spirituality course every spring for the past four years. He said that after spring semester registration began last month, students asked him why they couldn’t find the American Indian Spirituality course. Mato Nunpa emailed Dr. Nantawan Lewis, chair of the Religious and Ethnic Studies department, and she responded by email, telling him that the course would not be offered in 2012. Mato Nunpa said that Lewis cited a limited budget as the reason for not offering the course.

That led quickly to student protest, culminating in a march and a two-hour protest session with school officials this week. Mato Nunpa said the protest was student-planned. “I’m retired,” he told me in the phone call. “I don’t need to teach, but I still like to see the light bulbs come on in the students’ heads.”

Mato Nunpa said in an email that

to NOT teach these two courses during the year 2012 is academically unconscionable and unjust.  This course may be one of the few mediums/forums, during the year 2012, through which the TRUTH (bounties, concentration camps, forced marches, mass executions, suppression of Dakota spirituality and ceremonies, suppression of Indigenous languages, forced removal, or “ethnic cleansing,” of the Dakota People from their homelands here in the Minnesota region; terrorism, tragedy, and trauma, etc.) will be taught.

He said that he did not think Dr. Nantawan Lewis, chair of the Ethnic and Religious Studies department, would approve of him offering any courses in the future, “So, I think we need to look, also, at the possibility of identifying and using other programs to teach the courses.”

A “Statement of Facts” issued via email by Nantawan Lewis restated each “Claim” made by protesters and then countered each with a statement of “Fact.” Lewis’s email said that “Dakota People of Minnesota: Genocide, Survival, and Recovery” was “a one-time topical focus within a pre-existing course framework, not an independent stand-alone course, therefore it is not being canceled or cut.” Of course, it’s also not being offered.

Lewis acknowledged that the American Indian Spirituality course would not be offered in 2012, but said it would be offered in 2013. Her “Statement of Facts” concluded by citing “a long-term departmental and university commitment to Indigenous Studies,” and warning, “It is important to remain attentive to the ease in which different university staffing, curricular, and scheduling issues can be confused to create false and harmful controversies.”

A flurry of emails preceded and followed the protest. Some were directed to a campus-wide listserv, and were then forwarded to news media and others in the community.

Metro State faculty member Kathryn Kelley said in an email directed to a campus-wide listserv:

I will be on campus with Dr. Chris Mato Nunpa and students who were as shocked as he and I were to learn his course, American Indian Spirituality, which he has taught for the past four springs at Metropolitan State University through our Ethnic Studies Department, will not be offered this spring.  Nor is his Fall 2011 offering, The Dakota People of Minnesota:  Genocide, Survival, and Recovery, planned for next fall despite 2012 being the sesquicentennial of the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862 and the genocide of the Dakota people.

The Star Tribune reported that after the protesters marched to the school, “school President Sue Hammersmith, arts and sciences Dean Becky Omdahl and a group of administrators listened to them for more than two hours.” According to an email from Metro State associate professor Manuel Barrera (addressed to Lewis, but sent to the all-Metro listserv), “not a single member of the ethnic studies department even bothered to come and speak with students to defend its actions.” He continued:

It is tremendously unfortunate and shameful that your department would feel it hasn’t enough courage or respect for your students to come to and hear legitimate grievances and at the least explain your actions. What volumes it speaks that you would send a statement, but hide yourselves from the inquisitive minds and aggrieved constituents who were clearly invested in learning within your field.

Barrera also criticized Lewis’s “Statement of Facts:”

The document clearly articulates the disdain with which it treats this issue, the students raising it, and the American Indian community who stands with them by deflecting away from the issue: keeping and holding the two courses on Dakota people during spring 2012 as it has always done for many years. The statement colonizes the issue by framing the demands and concerns presented by the students and American Indian community as “claims” that should be countered by “facts”. It is an insidious literary device designed to marginalize legitimately raised issues predicated by the fact of the ethnic studies removal of courses clearly important to a community during a time when the issue of Dakota genocide is being memorialized in 2012.

Sounds like this is one war that isn’t over yet.